Class visits keep schools on track

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Walkthrough at Lowell

Photo by Jason Reblando

Walkthrough at Lowell

Walkthroughs are a staple of any area instructional officer’s job. The practice is simply what it says: Area instructional teams walk through a school, visiting classrooms and taking note of students’ work and how teachers are teaching.

From this, AIOs are able to pinpoint what’s working and where improvements are needed. Afterward, the team writes a report and discusses it with the principal, who weighs the team’s recommendations and determines which ones the school will implement.

Area 4 Instructional Officer Olga La Luz, who oversees schools in a territory that spans the Northwest Side, puts in a couple of school visits every day. By early November, she was in the midst of doing follow-up walkthroughs to make sure schools had addressed weaknesses in instruction that had been identified during the initial walkthrough. On Nov. 6, Associate Editor Sarah Karp joined La Luz and her team at Lowell Elementary:

8:30 a.m. It is a gray Monday morning. Children are gathering by the entry doors at Lowell Elementary while a few boys dart down the middle of the street, which is closed to traffic. Lowell is a majestic, hulking red brick building with a strip of intricate molding. Inside, the school has shiny black floors and extra wide hallways. In the heart of Humboldt Park, Lowell has about 880 students on its rolls, most of whom are Latino, but about a quarter of students are black.

8:35 a.m. The first bell rings. Lowell Principal Gladys Rivera is making coffee in her office, waiting for La Luz to arrive. Rivera has been a principal for four years. When she started, fewer than one in three students were performing at grade level.

Since then, test scores have inched forward. La Luz doesn’t blame Rivera, who shares her sense of mission for educating children, but considers Lowell a school that needs a lot of attention. It is the tenth week of the school year and today is La Luz’s third visit.

Rivera says that when she arrived at Lowell in 2000, hallway walls were bare, classrooms had no libraries and desks were lined up, one behind the other. “It was pretty traditional,” she says.

Rivera knew there had to be changes. Yet making them has not been easy.

8:40 a.m. La Luz walks in, wearing a long wool coat and pulling a suitcase on wheels that is stuffed to the brim with folders and paper. Later, she notes that she travels with a ton of material that supports her team’s recommendations, in case teachers or a principal challenge her. Assistant Principal Doris Negron takes a seat, as does Area 4 Upper Grades Reading Coach Judy DeJan, who has been in the building working with teachers since 7:30 a.m.

Walkthrough groups are comprised of area office staff and school staff. At the beginning of the school year, the entire area instructional team—La Luz and four academic coaches—participates in the walkthrough, splitting up into groups and hitting every classroom. Follow-ups are done by La Luz and the coach on her staff who oversees the subject that will be reviewed that day.

Today, La Luz is checking classroom libraries, which she judged as lackluster on her previous visit. Specifically, she is looking to see more books on grade level and above, and a better system for students to check out the books.

9:00 a.m. La Luz sits down in Rivera’s office and listens as Rivera catches her up on good things that are going on. Teachers have been working with reading coach DeJan to make sure what’s being taught in one grade builds on what children learned in the previous grade.

Negron mentions a project to infuse social and emotional lessons into the curriculum. “Last year, I spent my whole day dealing with behavior,” she says. A new curriculum encourages students to be kind and respect each other. Reading assignments reinforce this message, as do pictures on classroom walls. The word “peacemaker” was painted on the school’s front door.

“It has helped,” Negron says. Outside school walls, the neighborhood sees its share of violence—just weeks earlier a shooting and a stabbing occurred blocks from Lowell. Gangs are not a problem at school, Negron says, but many students see fighting as a way to deal with problems.

La Luz looks pleased. Several schools in her area have significant problems with discipline, and dealing with unruly behavior can consume too much time, preventing administrators from concentrating on instruction.

Turning her attention to the walkthrough, La Luz lets Rivera and Negron decide which classes she will visit.

9:40 a.m. LaLuz, DeJan, Rivera and Negron begin in the resource room, a classroom filled with books, baskets of books on tape and manipulatives for math. Two teachers are watching a DVD about how to teach poor children to decide whether the entire staff should view it. LaLuz nods her head. As a poor child growing up in the community, she recalls basic things—like when to use a spoon instead of a fork—that she didn’t know that teachers would never suspect.

9:45 a.m. The walkthrough team makes their way to a kindergarten room. Inside, children are standing in a line, reciting a poem about how to behave in the hallway. The room is a burst of color, with posters about reading, writing and math. La Luz points to the walls. “They are good,” she says. “It supports the students.”

Crayon-drawn pictures with large shapely letters typical of kindergarteners hang on clothes lines strung across the room. A rug in one section of the room is surrounded by bookshelves that are lined with baskets of books, each one clearly labeled by content.

Another rug signals the math center, where walls are filled with images that show different ways to represent the number 10—a bunch of straws wrapped together, a growth chart and a calendar marking the number of days students have been in school. The teacher is using a curriculum developed at the University of Illinois at Chicago that connects mathematics concepts to the real world, says La Luz.

Leaving the room, La Luz is impressed.

10:00 a.m. In a 2nd-grade class, students glance up when the team walks in, but they don’t stop what they are doing. La Luz walks over to the library and notes that it has been upgraded. She scans the wall for student work. Finding little, she purses her lips, then heads for students’ writing journals and flips through them.

Sensing La Luz’s disappointment as they leave the room, Negron mentions that some student work was taken down to spruce things up for report card pick up day. “I am glad you told me that,” she says.

La Luz, however, is troubled by another observation. She insists that all students keep journals so teachers can see how children are progressing. Looking at the journals, La Luz saw no evidence that the teacher was reviewing them or providing students with feedback. (Journals are not to be graded, but La Luz wants teachers to fill in comments, like “I love the way you explained your point.”) “It helps teachers connect with the children,” she says.

“And no stamps that say ‘excellent,'” DeJan adds. “Real comments let the students know that the teachers are reading what they are writing.”

Some teachers are having problems with the concept of journals, Rivera says. They tend not to give open-ended assignments, she explains.

10:05 a.m. Next, the team visits the bilingual 2nd grade. Walls are filled with posters and student work. Library books are clearly labeled. Children are hard at work. “You can see the difference,” Rivera says.

As an experienced principal, Rivera knows what a first-rate classroom looks like. Earlier, La Luz chided Rivera for sometimes being too gentle to force change. Rivera, with a note of frustration in her voice, responded that some teachers are more receptive than others, and that she tries to avoid hurt feelings.

10:10 a.m. The team enters a 4th-grade class, where the teacher is talking to some students. Examining student work and journals, La Luz and DeJan find students’ papers are comprised mostly of short paragraphs filled with one or two sentences. La Luz glances at the library, which is organized.

Back in the hallway, La Luz stops and looks worried. “The rigor is not as high as I would want it to be,” she says. She notes that the word wall was well done, however, and she likes that the students wrote the definitions.

10:15 a.m. In a 3rd-grade classroom, two students are listening to a book on tape in the library section. Others are reading silently. The teacher is sitting at a table with four students doing a “fluency snapshot,” which gauges individual reading levels. “Wow,” La Luz says.

She picks up a journal and sees full pages covered with careful handwriting. She fishes for another one to make sure that the first journal is not a fluke. It isn’t. Looking over La Luz’s shoulder, DeJan says, “what they are doing is so much higher than in the 4th or 5th grade.”

La Luz nods.

10:20 a.m. The team whips through upper grade classrooms quickly. La Luz points out strengths, such as one poster that teaches students how to think critically about passages or books they read and class projects on Egypt and Greece. La Luz sees students’ poster exhibits and gets a kick out of one student’s mummy.

10:35 a.m. LaLuz asks to see the art and music rooms. She rarely gets to visit these programs. The art room is in the basement; the large room smells of clay and paint. The art teacher talks about what students in different grades are doing. Some are making masks, while others are learning about perspective. Third-graders are drawing Georgia O’Keefe flowers. “I just love it,” LaLuz says.

10:45 Tall trophies line one wall in the music room. Drums and other equipment are draped with quilted black covers. Music is one of Lowell’s highlights. The band and chorus win state and national awards every year. Teacher Carmen Rivera is especially excited that one of her students recently won a place in a statewide band. She bought him a trophy and T-shirt to commemorate his achievement.

Learning to read music and perform publicly are valuable experiences, especially for poor children at Lowell who otherwise wouldn’t have such exposure, Principal Rivera says.

While Carmen Rivera talks, LaLuz sits down. She’s in awe of the program, particularly that parents are involved and run an active booster club.

11:05 a.m. Back in the principal’s office, the coffee that Rivera made first thing this morning has gotten cold and no one has had any. DeJan pulls out her notebook computer and types up a report while the group talks.

La Luz says classroom libraries and the book checkout system are significantly improved. Particularly noteworthy, she says, is that many classrooms have magazines and books targeted to boys, and getting black and Latino boys to read more is a district priority.

But La Luz is troubled by the upper grade classrooms, where the work, she says, appears to be below grade level and children are not being pushed to do more. “I want to make sure that the teachers know what on-level writing looks like,” she says. “They need models.”

DeJan says she saw little evidence that social studies was being taught. “I know that we don’t test social studies anymore, but incorporating social studies makes other subjects so much richer,” she says.

La Luz asks Rivera what short-term steps she can take to improve the items noted. Rivera begins to talk about making the curriculum more rigorous, but DeJan stops her, noting that isn’t a short-term goal.

“What would be the most important thing that you can do to improve achievement?” La Luz presses.

Rivera answers that they’re planning to do more teacher training and have decided to use weekly faculty meetings for professional development.

La Luz cautions Rivera not to do everything at once. She also suggests that Rivera pull aside teachers whose classes are the most lacking and work with them. “Go sit with them,” La Luz tells Rivera. “Provide models and make sure that the teachers succeed. Start with something simple.”

11:30 a.m. La Luz slides her binder into her bag, gets up and puts on her coat. She has two more schools to visit on this Monday and then she will go back to her office for a few hours. Says she will be back at Lowell in four or five weeks.